St. Joseph Altar

For longer than I can remember, every time a storm was on its way, my mom tossed out a piece of “blessed bread” and said a prayer to St. Joseph for protection.

(St. Joseph is the patron of those in need, whether it be workers, travelers, the persecuted, poor, aged, and dying. His feast day is March 19.)

The other night at dinner, Mom pointed out that her supply of blessed bread is dwindling and now that her sister (Auntie M.) has passed, she probably won’t be able to replenish it.

Auntie M., you see, always attended the St. Joseph Altars held along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she always sent Mom a supply of blessed bread and cookies to stash in the freezer for stormy days.

It dawned on me that she was right. Here in the Midwest, I’ve never heard of anyone holding a St. Joseph Altar. I lived in Texas for several years; same story.

Holding a St. Joseph Altar is a Sicilian tradition (yes, I’m half Sicilian!). It started many years ago when a drought took hold of Sicily, the people prayed to St. Joseph, and the famine ceased. In thanksgiving, they prepared a table with a variety of food they’d harvested, and gave that food to the poor.

Immigrants to this country brought the custom with them, embellishing it and setting up elaborate tables filled with breads, cookies, and pastries baked in shapes like chalices. Custom dictated that no expense be incurred in setting up the altar; consequently, the “hosts” had to beg for contributions, similar to what the Sicilian people did.

I attended one of these Altars as a youngster and found it fascinating. Children portray members of the Holy Family, going door to door before reaching the site of the Altar; huge pots of spaghetti and other foods are served to the public; Fava (“lucky”) beans and a piece of blessed bread are sent home with those who attend; everything (money, food, whatever) is distributed to the poor afterward.

Hosting a St. Joseph Altar involves an entire family, and I just can’t see Mom undertaking such a task at this stage of her life. So I guess we’ll have to continue the “begging” tradition and rely on the rest of my family to send some goodies this way — hint, hint!